How Could The Lions Improve Their Offense This Offseason?
When viewing Detroit’s needs for the 2016 offseason, the offense is rarely mentioned as a place that the team needs to target for upgrades and young talent. While the defense is certainly a priority, there are still crucial needs on the offensive side of the ball that cannot be ignored, and key talent that needs to be retained.
Matthew Stafford and his late game runs had some viewing the Lions offense as a perfectly competent machine with room to grow, but their showings also displayed some vital flaws. The most prominent fault of all was the lack of a power run element. Blocking suffered tremendously without a credible inline tight end, holes weren’t opening up on a regular basis in the middle with injuries along the offensive line, and no runner proved capable of pushing the pile to pick up tough yards when it mattered.
If the proper role players are found, this issue can be fixed quite easily, and with little in the way of draft investment. So with that lets take a trip through the best case Detroit Lions offseason.
Obviously there is not a lot of change planned here. Stafford is the present and future of the franchise, just barely entering his prime with many good years surely left ahead of him. While he certainly needs a new contract sooner rather then later, that is more of a matter of time in my mind and not pertinent in this discussion. He will be resigned by Detroit, it will be long term, and it’s going to be close to the largest dollar figure signed in league history. Nobody with a decent football IQ should think that’s a bad idea.
The real question is what will occur behind him. Dan Orlovsky has been the backup for several years now, but he’s getting up in age at this point and has limited upside at this stage in his career.
The main reason for keeping him in the past was to help Stafford grow and develop as a player. With Stafford becoming an elite player though there’s no need for someone to fill that role and it’s time to start looking at grooming a young player to have around as a developmental piece. Jake Rudock seems to have the potential to be that guy.
Detroit was forced to bring him up to the active roster when teams tried to swipe him off the practice squad this season and clearly like his development thus far. While it’s typically a good idea to roll with three QB’s in case of injury, if you’re certain about your #2 you can get away with dropping the third man.
Even in an ideal offseason though it’s tough to see Bob Quinn roll with just Rudock behind Stafford. They probably keep Dan on one more year as a veteran backup plan should a code red emergency arise.
New Depth Chart: Matthew Stafford, Jake Rudock, Dan Orlovsky
Total Investment: None
This position group struggled mightily with injuries all year so it’s a bit tough to evaluate. Ameer Abdullah is the clear lead back here so long as he stays healthy but he’s now suffered two significant injuries in two seasons. He should definitely retain his #1 role but he needs to be used in smarter ways to avoid further damage.
Theo Riddick is still arguably the best receiving threat out of the backfield in the NFL but again proved he cannot be anywhere near a threat running between the tackles. Those two are solidified on the roster as the top two options but beyond them things get murky.
Zach Zenner is the next guy on the depth chart but still has yet to show definitely that he is an NFL quality power back. Sure he does a lot of good things but he’s not really solid in any one area. Outside of two noticeable performances against the Packers abysmal defense and the Cowboys backups, Zenner had 198 yards on 56 attempts for 3.5 yards per carry.
That’s right around Minnesota’s league worst rushing unit’s numbers. The obvious fact that nobody wants to mention because Zenner is so well liked among the fan community, and rightfully so, is that he simply cannot push the pile on a regular basis. He needs a clear hole to be productive and if you’re going to be the power back of an effective rotation with a hugely important role on the team, you need to be able to generate yards when that isn’t available.
Zenner is a great #4 to have as a backup and special teams guy but thats about his extent. Dwayne Washington looked interesting in spurts early but quickly died off, becoming more and more hesitant as the season went on and was awful in pass blocking. While it’s not time to pull the plug at this point he’s going to be fighting for his roster spot this offseason.
Finally fullback Michael Burton is undoubtably a really solid player and one of the better players at his position. The problem is Jim Bob Cooter has yet to find a way to use him effectively and he’s just wasting away on the bench for no good reason. In fact he was one of the least used full time Fullbacks in the NFL last year playing less then 10% of Detroit’s offensive snaps.
The first thing that needs to be done here is address the power back position. While Abdullah is the clear top dog, a role player that can pick up tough yards between the tackles is simply a must get for the Lions in order to lengthen Ameer’s career.
Samaje Perine in the 4th round of the draft offers absurd value for Detroit and highlights the crazy depth of this class. He’s a dominant bruiser that also happens to have deadly agility, great hands, and solid pass protection skills combining to form the perfect package for the type of guy Detroit needs in the backfield.
He could have the potential to develop into a workhorse every down guy should Abdullah’s Lisfranc injury be more serious then previously thought, but he has a bit of a durability issue and some speed concerns. That being said if you grab Perine here the Lions offense instantly becomes significantly more dangerous and efficient and that type of piece is extremely rare to find in the mid to late fourth.
He would take Washington’s roster spot while Dwayne slides down to the practice squad. The only other player to note in changes is Michael Burton. As previously mentioned, there is no sense in keeping a quality talent on the bench when his role could be filled much more efficiently.
He still has two years left on a very team friendly contract and there are several teams that either have a need or could use an upgrade at the postition. Detroit could rather easily get a mid 6th round pick for him on the open market.
New Depth Chart: Ameer Abdullah, Theo Riddick, Samaje Perine, Zach Zenner
Total Investment: A third round pick, got a 6th round pick back (for Burton)
A lot has been invested into the wide receiver position over the last few years between Golden Tate a few seasons ago, and Marvin Jones last year. Those two provide a very solid 1A/1B pairing with Jones providing a more traditional outside receiver role, and Tate working as more of a gadget guy lining up all over the field.
Beyond that though, as with the running backs, there are questions and concerns. Anquan Boldin had an extremely important role last year for Detroit but he was essentially serving as a receiving TE since Detroit had nothing after Ebron at the position. At 37 next October, he’s certainly lost a step and its uncertain at this point if he is worth the price tag. Especially considering Ebron should be taking on a larger role at this stage.
Andre Roberts was a nice surprise as the WR4, hauling in some big catches and playing quite well overall. He also proved to be one of the best punt return men in the league last year and an alright kick returner as well. That should get him resigned for a few more years at the right price. After that between TJ Jones and Jace Billingsley there isn’t a whole lot to write home about.
In the best case scenario, Boldin just doesn’t represent enough upside to keep around when combined with his dollar value and upgrades which will be referred to later on. Instead a cheaper option could fill the void in free agency through Brian Quick.
The Rams receiver has shown spurts of really solid play over his time with the Rams and should be had for a relatively affordable price after dealing with the ineptitude of the Rams organization for years, pushing his production down. He will be able to do enough in the third wide reciever role and comes with the flexibility to work all over the field on a short term deal.
To address the future, the Lions could look for another value pick in the 5th round with great potential: Travin Dural. At LSU he was in a run first offense with terrible quarterback play, which will hold back his draft value, however he has clearly illustrated ability over the course of his time in college ball. He has a great size/speed combination that can be used to help stretch the field opposite Marvin Jones, and could develop into a significant asset after some polish and work with a quality signal caller. The shedding of the fullback allows the Lions to go back to a traditional five wide receiver unit.
New Depth Chart: Golden Tate, Marvin Jones, Brian Quick, Travin Dural, Andre Roberts
Total Investment: a 5th round pick, and $3.5 million dollars in signings/resignings
Without question tight end was the most talent poor position on the Lions offense last year. Eric Ebron has had his ups and downs since getting to Detroit, and isn’t the most popular Lion out there, but he’s developed into a fairly solid option as a receiving tight end. Perhaps he is not as great as everyone had hoped he would be when he was drafted out of North Carolina, but he has gotten progressively better every season and showed flashes last year of borderline top five TE potential.
He most likely will have his option picked up and hopefully continues to grow as a player. The better he gets the more effective the Lions offense will be. Beyond Ebron though was a complete mess due to Brandon Pettigrew’s injury which eventually led to his release. The combination of Cole Wick, Mathew Mulligan, Cole Harbour and whoever else the Lions inserted into the lineup was the equivalent of scraping the absolute bottom of the barrel and needs to be upgraded on extensively going forward.
First to resolve the TE2 slot, you need a versatile in line player that is equally comfortable blocking and receiving the ball. The best option for that in either the draft or free agency without question is Dion Sims.
He’s well regarded as a great blocker and lately with injuries to Jordan Cameron, and with Charles Clay’s departure for Buffalo, he’s gotten more and more opportunities to show off his receiving skills. He has experience in an H-back role from his earlier time in Miami, which gives him the ability to replace Michael Burton’s limited snaps out of the backfield. Also can take over the rest of Anquan Boldin’s responsibilities from last year that Ebron doesn’t pick up in an expanded role.
At only 25 years old, Detroit could bring Sims back to his home town on a long term deal. Providing them with a little bit of insurance incase Ebron departs in free agency in coming years, should he demand too much money on the open market. Sims without question improves Detroit’s run game through versatile blocking ability, and pass game as a more deceptive option from an in line stance.
After that though the TE3 slot still needs to be addressed, and that can be handled with a late draft pick. Since the position was addressed already in free agency it takes the need down from a significantly earlier pick. A developmental prospect is still important for depth behind the starting two and special teams.
With one of their possible three 6th round picks (based on my scenario), Detroit could target Antony Auclair out of Laval, the 6′ 6, 254 pound receiver convert out of Canada. Auclair has a lot to like about him: a great size speed combo, good hands, and great toughness. He can be left to special teams duty and some limited action while he refines his technique and adjusts to the NFL level of competition, and can be ready in a few years should Ebron be lost as a potential #2 option behind Sims.
New Depth Chart: Eric Ebron, Dion Sims, Antony Auclair
An area of concern entering the year, the offensive line had good and bad moments in 2016 but was generally quite good when healthy behind a great rookie season from 1st round pick Taylor Decker. Rookies Decker and third rounder Graham Glasgow anchored the left side of the line surprisingly well in their first season and look like long term pieces to build around.
So to does Travis Swanson at center who had an amazing comeback season turning from a bottom five into a top five player at his position before suffering a concussion toward the end of the year.
The real question marks come on the right side of the line, where right guard Larry Warford and right tackle Riley Reiff are both primed to hit the free agent market and test their value. Both Reiff and Warford looked very good at times last year, Reiff especially in his first year on the right side, and should be the top two priorities for Detroit heading into the offseason.
Keeping continuity along a young o-line can only help grow the strength of the starters as they play together over time. While it is fair to be concerned about potentially overpaying for those two guys, when you factor in that the left side of the line still has four years left on their rookie contracts, you can afford to overspend on the right side in the short term.
For the first time in a while the team has also started to develop some pretty decent depth along the offensive line as well. Laken Tomlinson is a huge disappointment thus far but will be fighting for his job this summer but after that Joe Dahl has looked pretty good in limited time along with Corey Robinson coming off the bench for injured starters. Brandon Thomas, the third round mauling guard acquired in a trade with San Fransisco will also be added to the mix to compete for a spot.
Ideally the best case scenario for the offensive line is resigning Reiff and Warford and locking them up for the next four to five years. Offering a longer contract with more guaranteed money should in theory keep the costs down enough that they can both be retained without issue. Beyond that, getting another tackle to take the 4th OT spot should be considered as well with Cornelius Lucas hitting free agency and Corey Robinson with only two years left on his rookie deal. Don Barclay comes to mind as a great primary depth lineman if they can steal him from Green Bay off the free agent market.
New Depth Chart: Decker, Glasgow, Swanson, Warford, Reiff, Barclay, Dahl, Robinson, Tomlinson
Total Investment: $17 million dollars in signings/resignings
The Lions offense certainly doesn’t need major fixes this offseason, but bringing back the right guys with a couple additions would be huge for the unit. With these changes the run game has been thoroughly addressed through both blocking improvements and a better rotation, creating a group that is deeper and stronger then ever.
The tight end position goes from being a liability to being a strength of the team, providing an immense amount of more flexibility for Jim Bob Cooter and Stafford in their formations and play deception. The offensive line is kept in tact improving protection for the franchise QB, and the receiving options are diversified, adding both size and speed to the unit for Stafford to spread the ball around to.
When combined with defensive improvements necessary to help turn the other side of the ball around, these moves definitively take Detroit to the next level skill wise for the 2017 season.
Final Offensive Roster
QB: Matthew Stafford, Jake Rudock, Dan Orlovsky
RB: Ameer Abdullah, Theo Riddick, Samaje Perine*, Zach Zenner
WR: Marvin Jones, Golden Tate, Brian Quick*, Andre Roberts, Travin Dural*
TE: Eric Ebron, Dion Sims*, Antony Auclair*
OT: Eric Decker, Reilly Reiff, Don Barclay*, Corey Robinson
OG/C: Larry Warford, Travis Swanson, Graham Glasgow, Joe Dahl, Laken Tomlinson